It was just past four in the afternoon when Eli decided to wander back and move a recent load of wash into the dryer. The communal laundry room was located just behind his family’s house – strategically placed so seasonal tenants in the rear cottage could gain access.
Eli was the landlord’s son – dark-haired, mid-20s, endless-summer complexion. And he was eager to provide on-site renters with whatever amenities they might need; a rare and admirable trait among island freeholders, the kind that spoke much more to Eli’s character than it did the market’s profit motive.
Eli turned the bend onto a patio, his attention quickly drawn to a ragged stranger leaning up against the cottage. This stranger stood 5’9 with dust-brown hair and drooping jowls – long-sleeved T-shirt worn over denim jeans … sweat-driven frame clinging hard to vinyl siding.
Eli looked up at a glass jalousie, jutting out above the stranger’s head. Then he shifted back and down again, establishing direct contact with the stranger as a means of keeping both parties in check. Eli crouched down low to place an empty basket on the ground, rising up with both hands held shoulder-wide in mock surrender.
“You mind if I ask what it is that you’re doing?” Eli said.
The stranger raised a single finger to pursed lips, cautioned Eli with a shush, before lowering that same finger to his waist, where he burrowed it inside a pocket. Seconds later, the stranger pulled a jet-black ski mask from his jeans, wrung it out like a soiled rag held between plying hands.
“I’m coverin’ up,” the stranger said, motioning hard toward the cottage door.
It was at this point Eli noticed several tiny bursts of steam, rising slow from out the shower vent … a vent that was clearly missing two of its main slats.
Eli swung down low to grab the laundry basket, held it firm to shield his chest. He angled slow toward the stranger, mindful to cut off any exit points along the way.
Sensing danger, the stranger made his move … leaping clear across a chain-link fence that ran along the alley. He touched down inside a nearby yard, leveled out and broke full-stride, pounding hard across a checkered maze of lawn furniture and linens, until he vanished altogether in the dense and blinding haze.
Billy Lee was one of five tenants who lived in the rear cottage that summer. The other four were all females – Billy’s older sister and a few of her close friends.
There was only one tenant home at the time of said incident – a short brunette named Vicki who had just stepped out of the shower when a pair of Class II Officers arrived upon her doorstep.
Those officers conducted a routine inspection of the premises, which revealed an additional glass slat had gone missing from the cottage door. That particular slat – or louver, as it is sometimes called – ran roughly parallel to the door knob … a knob which Vicki noted had been left suspiciously unlocked, despite a long-standing house rule dictating the front door remain secure at all times.
While both officers insisted they had no clear-cut suspect in mind, they were also quick to add the perp’s M.O. was consistent with a series of similar incidents that occurred in the vicinity that summer, two of which had escalated into full-blown sexual assaults. The insinuation being North Wildwood might very well have a serial rapist on its hands … one whose standard operating procedure included preying upon lone females who lived in set-back cottages, much like the one Billy Lee and his four roommates had been calling home all season.
The central question that now loomed was whether Eli’s back-alley heroics would prove enough to keep the island predator at bay, or whether he’d be back at some point down the line to settle the account.
None of this was coming at a very good time for the Cape May County Police Department, some of which had come under fire recently due to a major spike in violent crime … a 14% spike, to be exact, with local clearance rates lagging 9% behind where they stood a mere 12 months prior.
Aggravated assaults were up 16%. Sexual assaults were up 11.
Robbery was up to the extent that – by year’s end – there would be more than a million dollars worth of stolen merchandise still left unaccounted for throughout the jurisdiction.
As if that wasn’t enough, a series of highly-publicized incidents had suddenly thrust the entire City of Wildwood into the media spotlight.
Back in December of ’92, a suspicious off-season fire swept across Midway Pier, resulting in an estimated $2.5 million worth of damages – a devastating blow, leading skeptics to wonder how a blaze of that gross magnitude could possibly erupt in the stone-dead hush of winter.
A few months after that, a small contingent of L.A. Bloods traveled east to Wildwood, New Jersey, where they carried out a premeditated hit on an unarmed father of three outside a birthday party on West Schellenger. One of those assailants – a juvenile – was arrested almost immediately, with two more being apprehended outside the Atlantic City Bus Terminal a few days later, and a fourth being extradited from Los Angeles in the weeks that followed.
But the real shocker came on July 20th of that summer, when a team of special agents raided the Sea Wolf Hotel in North Wildwood, seeking to execute an arrest warrant for Matarawy Mohammad Said Saleh, one of 11 federal suspects later convicted in a conspiracy to simultaneously bomb not only the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, but also the United Nations and the Federal Building in New York City.
When confronted, Mr. Saleh attempted to flee on foot, momentarily seizing an 11-year old boy in the process. The suspect was subsequently tackled from behind by an alert FBI Agent, and the boy escaped unharmed.
In the days and weeks that followed, every media outlet from The Orlando Sentinel to The L.A. Times was busy digging its claws into that story. The Cape May County Herald, on the other hand, was far too busy previewing the 84th Annual Baby Parade, co-sponsored by the Wildwood Civic Club – a proud member of the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs.
Throughout the first two weeks in August, the rear cottage on East 10th Street remained on constant lock-down – bolts fastened, curtains drawn … every window in the house either nailed tight or painted shut. There was nary a spot of natural light to be found, and even less in the way of laid-back conversation. Nonetheless, Billy and I rushed back there every evening after work, where we’d remain on house patrol straight up until the break of day.
Eventually, the dark clouds passed, and life went back to normal down on 10th Street. Meanwhile, Billy Lee and I had grown so fond of spending nights around the kitchen table that we just went right on doing so, perhaps more out of boredom than any real sense of routine.
One night in middle August, Billy’s sister and her roommates were all drinking in the living room, waiting for a fourth roommate named Garden to finish getting ready, so they could head out for the evening.
Garden was locked inside her bedroom now, applying make-up in a towel. Just before she went to change, Garden noticed something odd in the reflection of her mirror. The bedroom window was pushed open … wide open, in fact … allowing tons of central air to drift out through the seam. Both her drapes were pushed aside as well – a bold and blatant violation, given what the five of them had suffered through.
Garden slammed the curler down, wandered fast onto the window. She forced the wooden panel shut, grabbed the curtains with both hands. Then she froze still as a statue, squinting hard into the darkness at a vile and brooding silhouette staring back behind the glass.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)